This is John's fourth blog entry for the 2003 production of Richard II in which he talks about preparing to perform at Middle Temple Hall.
Transcript of Podcast
We’re about to open at Middle Temple Hall, and for the first time, we’re really concentrating on our movements; where we move and when. Yesterday's run was absolutely amazing; it was a complete free-for-all, movement-wise; people could move wherever and whenever they liked, yet it worked fantastically well. Those who were watching were very complimentary, and we haven’t even opened yet!
It's been an amazing rehearsal process, unlike any I’ve experienced before. We spent a great deal of time talking about the scenes, doing improvisations and learning all about Elizabethan society and etiquette. This meant we’ve spent less time than I’m used to directly working on the play itself, yet the whole play has come together in a way I could never have imagined. It's all rather wonderful. I was worried in the run-up to yesterday's run because there was a very real danger that people would get stuck standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and sticking out like a sore thumb, but because we had been so well drilled in rehearsals, because we knew our characters and the world of the play so well, during the run the whole production seemed to come together organically.
Our movements are governed above all by the social formalities of the time; bowing, for example. Bowing is a very precise procedure, especially when you are wearing a hat. It is vital to take your hat off from the back; if you take it off from the front, you risk revealing the inside, (which is probably very dirty), to whoever you are bowing to. Especially important was remembering to bow to your family and peers; for instance, you would bow upon meeting them in the morning, and if you bumped into them in the corridor half an hour later, you’d have to bow again. At court, the necessary formalities became more numerous: you must always bow to the king (always removing your hat, which you don’t put back on until he's left the room), you must remember the hierarchy of those present in relation to the king, and stand only as close to him as your status allows. All of these rules gave us a type of structure within which we can try out different ways of doing each scene. Yesterday, I was suddenly struck by the different ways in which different characters work within these rules. For example, the ‘favourites’, Bushy, Bagot and Green, are doing very different bows to the older characters in the play; theirs are far more languorous and elaborate. Because we’re only just starting to do regular runs, everything about the production is very exciting to watch, which in itself is unusual; normally at this stage in rehearsals, the company will know the show so well that when we’re not on-stage we’re often sitting there doing the crossword… Yesterday it was so exciting, it felt like we were spectators at the first night.
Blocking the play for Middle Temple Hall
Having finished this last run, Tim [Carroll. Master of Play] is now starting to suggest specific places where we should stand at certain points during the play. He isn’t doing this a lot, just enough to make sure that each scene is fully opened out to use the whole length of Middle Temple Hall. It's easy to forget just how long the space is; Tim is just making sure that the whole audience there will be able to see, and to a certain extent feel involved with, the whole production. This is especially important in the first scene, when the audience will effectively take the role of Richard's court.
In general, I don’t like performing either in traverse or in the round. This is especially the case in small studios; I find having an audience that close to us in such a small space too overwhelming. At the Globe however, I love playing in the round because the audience is close to the stage, but the distance (both vertical and horizontal) between actors and audience is slightly greater. Middle Temple Hall is a beautiful space, but it's tricky to play because there are so few exits. The last time I did Richard II was in the Cottesloe Theatre (part of the National Theatre), where the seats were set out in exactly the same way as Middle Temple Hall, (the stage was a long rectangle shape, with seats on both longer sides and at one end), except there were vomitoriums [see Glossary] in the middle of the longer sides, so the actors had four exits, not two. In Middle Temple Hall, only being able to enter and exit at either end of the space means there is a risk of getting stuck at the wrong end of the space and having to make a long tedious exit. Perhaps, if the company goes back to Middle Temple Hall in the future, they could consider putting in some exits half-way down each of the longer sides of the space. Having said that, it's a fantastic space with a sensational acoustic and I’m really looking forward to performing there.
At the moment, it feels as though the production could change every night because our preparation has been so thorough. It's very fluid. Perhaps Tim [Carroll] will choose to nail it down a bit more over the next few days, after all, we haven’t run the play that many times yet. But it's all looking good at the moment.